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Extension Update from Megan Burda: Becoming a Servant Leader


Becoming a Servant Leader: Do You Have What it Takes?

Servant leadership is one of the most talked about yet least critically examined leadership philosophies. While many people closely identify with this leadership approach, an equal number are cynical and question whether expectations of leaders are realistic. This article provides an introduction to servant leadership, based on the works of Robert Greenleaf and Larry Spears, and focuses on the 11 characteristics that identify a servant leader.

Characteristics of Servant Leadership Calling

Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice self-interest for the good of the group? Servant leaders have a natural desire to serve others. This notion of having a calling to serve is deeply rooted and value-based. Servant leaders have a desire to make a difference for other people and will pursue opportunities to impact others’ lives — never for their own gain.


Do people believe that you want to hear their ideas and will value them? Servant leaders are excellent listeners. They are receptive and genuinely interested in the views and input of others. People instinctively understand that servant leaders want them to share their ideas and that these ideas will be valued.


Do people believe that you will understand what is happening in their lives and how it affects them? Servant leaders can “walk in others’ shoes.” They understand and empathize with others’ circumstances and problems. Leaders who are empathetic have earned confidence from others by understanding whatever situation is being faced.


Do people come to you when the chips are down or when something traumatic has happened in their lives? Servant leaders are people who others want to approach when something traumatic has happened. They are good at facilitating the healing process and others gravitate toward them when emotional needs arise. The ability to create an environment that encourages emotional mending is crucial for those who want to become great servant leaders.


Do others believe you have a strong awareness for what is going on? Servant leaders have a keen sense for what is happening around them. They are always looking for cues from the environment to inform their opinions and decisions. They know what’s going on and will rarely be fooled by appearances.


Do others follow your requests because they want to or because they believe they “have to?” Servant leaders seek to convince others to do things rather than relying on formal authority. They are naturally very persuasive and offer compelling reasons when they make requests. They never force others to do things.


Do others communicate their ideas and vision for the organization when you are around? Servant leaders nurture the ability to conceptualize the world, events and possibilities. They encourage others to dream great dreams and avoid getting bogged down by day-to-day realities and operations. They foster an environment that encourages thinking big and valuing the creative process.


Do others have confidence in your ability to anticipate the future and its consequences? Servant leaders have an uncanny ability to anticipate future events. This is not to say they are psychic or always right, but they are adept at picking up patterns in the environment and seeing what the future will bring. They usually anticipate consequences of decisions with great accuracy.


Do others believe you are preparing the organization to make a positive difference in the world? Servant leaders often are characterized by a strong sense of stewardship. A steward in an organization is responsible for preparing it for its destiny, usually for the betterment of society. When we describe a leader as having a strong sense of stewardship, we refer to a desire to prepare the organization to contribute to the greater good of society. Making a positive difference in the future is characteristic of the stewardship mentality.


Do people believe that you are committed to helping them develop and grow? Servant leaders have a strong commitment to the growth of people. They believe that all people have something to offer beyond their tangible contributions. Those who want to be great servant leaders need to connect to others’ developmental needs and actively find ways to meet these needs.

Building Community

Do people feel a strong sense of community in the organization that you lead? Servant leaders have a strong sense of community spirit and work hard to foster it in an organization. They believe that an organization needs to function as a community. Those who want to be great servant leaders need to work hard to build community in the organization.

Servant Leadership Development

Servant leadership is characterized by a belief that leadership development is an on-going, life-long learning process. For this reason, servant leaders commit to continual development in the 11 characteristics of servant leadership.

Source: Nebraska Extension NebGuide G1484. John E. Barbuto Jr., Associate Professor, Agricultural Leadership, Education and Communication and Daniel W. Wheeler, Extension Leadership Development Specialist



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